Is it the truth? The men by the fire asked me.
It is what I remember, I replied.
But is it the truth? They asked.
Not at all, I answered. Just like your own. But I digress.
My mother the witch was once a woman, too, as fair as I am – do not tutt me. There is no crime in knowing one’s power, only in exercising it to ill end, or in ill company.
And was she no longer a woman, when she became a witch? What, if not a woman, could she be?
Why, Sir, would you burn a woman?
I’ve been burned by one before. Why not?
You have a sharp wit, Sir. But I mean only to say that they treated her as less than a woman when she became a witch, not that she changed in anything but action. Long before they wrote warts and wrinkles over her face, she was a woman, and my mother. For long hours we would sit together by the firelight, her hand brushing my hair, gently, until I fell asleep on her lap.
Before she was a witch. Before she had the power?
She always had the power.
Then wasn’t she always a witch?
Will you let me tell my story, damn it?
He apologizes. Go on.
My mother and I sat together for hours and hours before the fire. We let it soak into us, and sometimes she would take a piece of the flames and make it dance for me, like a little man. (I did not know then, of course, what they were.) I sat with her and sometimes she let me braid her long dark hair, so much more elegant than my coarse brown tangle, and for hours sometimes I would watch as she painted her lips the red of the bloody cherrry.
Why do you paint yourself, mother? I would ask. You are already so lovely.
Men are unkind to women who know that they are lovely, she would say. And to women who are unlovely. And to women who try to be lovely.
Are you trying to be lovely?
No, she would say, and finish the line of coal above her lashes. I am trying to look like death.
Is death lovely, mother? I ask.
No, she replied. But it is irresistible.
It was my eleventh birthday. And down my mother went from our hut, leaving me in rooms with furniture strangely small, the seven rooms so quaintly empty. Her cape fluttered behind her, a sky blue against the snow.
She did not return until the next night, and this time she came as an old woman knocking at the door. I knew it was her from her perfume – my father was a huntsman, after all – but all the same, I was scared.
Little girl, little girl, let me in, she called. I said nothing, watching the window with frightened eyes. I’ve apples to sell. You can’t know how good they’ll taste. Fresh, crunchy, sweet-smelling apples.
I ran up to the second story and peered out the window, my eyes narrowed.
Mom, those are off our own tree! I exclaimed, astounded, and the old woman looked to the second story window before throwing her head back and cackling.
Never could fool you, my mother said, her wrinkled flesh fading back to its usual cream. Never could.
The next time I met my mother in disguise she wore a better one – none of that vaudeville witchery, this time. This time she appeared as a student in my class on the first day of high school, sitting beside me on the bus to school, and offered me a smoking cigarette.
It keeps you thin, she’d said.
And smells like shit, I’d replied, and I pulled the better brand out of my coat, offering her one. These are much better.
My mother fell out of the seat, her glamour fading with her laughter.
Never could fool you, she’d said. Never could.
And yet you don’t stop trying, do you?
I sit by the window of my college dorm, brushing out my hair. It is still the first week, but my roommate has snapped at me and I think I may be in love with someone who may not – who does not – love me back. I am weeping, watching my face in the mirror. What doesn’t he see in me? My mother was so lovely, unreal in her loveliness, really. Every man who met her loved her. Even the woodsman sent to kill her loved her. How awful must I be, that not even a man who knows me, really knows me, can love me?
In the mirror the brush is in another woman’s hand. I watch it rise and fall, my mother’s hands, as she strokes my hair, begins to braid it, softly sings.
Mom, I say softly, but she shakes her head, still singing, brushing back my hair with what should be my own hands. Mom, is that you? Her eyes are too wide, and I realize my mistake. I turn to see the upraised knife, the brilliant flash of pearly teeth, and let myself fall backwards over my chair onto the floor, kicking the chair towards the – the thing – as I scramble backwards. I bump into the mirror and it begins to fall, quickly, so quickly it almost catches me but hits the the thing instead. I fall back against the wall, my eyes rolling upwards for a moment, as it shudders and spasms and writhes and stops, suddenly, the last seizing deathroe of a wildcat. I stagger upwards, my heart beating like a war drum. My roommate opens the door, stops in the doorway.
What is it? She asks, staring at the creature. She covers her mouth with her hand. Did she come out of the mirror?
I don’t know, I reply, breathing hard. I… I look at my roommate, frowning. Too acute. Mom? I asked, and she raised her eyebrows, her suddenly dark and delicate lashes overshadowing cornflower blue eyes. Mom, did you put that there?
No, she replied. But I couldn’t keep it out, could I?
Did… did I put it there? I asked.
No, she said quietly. No.
Then what was it? I asked. She looked at me, her perfect face as cold as her name.
A curse, she said.
What kind? I asked.
The inherited kind, she replied, and was gone as soon as she’d come, the only difference between her arrival and her parting my made bed and new-washed sheets, the body gone, of course – a witch for sure, my mother.
Is it the truth? The men ask. Did all that really happen?
Yes, I reply. It is the truth.
But what kind? They ask, suddenly cautious. For all stories can be called truth, in firelight, in the reflections on men’s eyes.
The inherited kind. Just like your own.